What I Learned From Excruciating Pain

By Thomas J. Lee

The first sign of trouble felt no worse than a mild flu bug. I awoke on a Monday morning in June with my normal, high energy. After coffee, I was gathering my gym togs for a workout when, suddenly feeling a little sluggish, I crawled back to bed for just ten more minutes.

That was all she wrote. I slept all day and all the next night. By the next morning I had slept thirty-one of the preceding thirty-six hours. But I felt refreshed and re-energized—until I took one step out of bed.

A bolt of pain the likes of which I had never come close to experiencing—a pain so fierce, so paralyzing, I had never conceived of it—shot from my left foot to the core of my being. Imagine a sword thrust from the bottom of your foot up the length of your leg. Seriously. Although I rarely use profanity, I screamed multiple, loud f-bombs and scatological imprecations. You doubtless heard them bouncing off the moon. Then I called my primary physician.

Fearing a blood clot, he ordered me straight to the nearest emergency room. Thankfully, tests ruled out a clot. Doctors made a straightforward diagnosis: cellulitis, something I had never heard of. At first I thought they said cellulite. No, cellulitis—a superficial though excruciatingly painful, intolerably painful, skin infection. 

I would soon learn that cellulitis is not contagious, and your environment plays no role in it, but it is quite common. Close to a dozen friends tell me they have had it, and it is always intensely painful. Several mature women told me they had given birth three and four times, and their cellulitis was far more painful than any of the childbirths. I believe it.

The ER docs promptly administered an antibiotic by infusion. A few hours later they sent me on my way with a prescription and encouragement. They said I would be feeling better in no time.

If only. Three days later I was back. It was even worse. By now my left leg was bright red, swollen to twice its size, and still swelling even more. It was throbbing. I could scarcely stand, let alone walk.

This time the doctors admitted me. I spent the next six days in the hospital receiving a cocktail of three powerful antibiotics by infusion and a couple of narcotic painkillers. By now my leg was turning a hoary gray as the inflamed skin died and began peeling off. One doctor told me it was akin to a second-degree burn. Then I was transferred by ambulance to skilled nursing for eight more days. There—quite literally, I am not exaggerating—I had to learn how to walk again. Stairs were especially challenging, as all my weight would be on my left leg every other step.

After two full weeks of medical incarceration, I was finally released and sent home, my leg still bandaged up but noticeably improving. The inflammation and swelling had both subsided, and the pain was much less intense as well. Complete recovery would take a couple of additional weeks.

We may never know how I got it. Cellulitis typically results from staph bacteria on your skin (of which we all have gazillions) that somehow find their way into your body and beneath your epidermis. Often you can point to a cut, scrape, sting, or bite that opens a pore for the bacteria to walk through. But not always. I couldn't remember any. One possibility was a dental appointment a week or two earlier, for the hygienist had nicked my gum. Another possibility was a slight brush with poison ivy on a recent hike—not enough to induce a reaction, but enough that I rubbed the itch and thereby stretched open a pore. Who knows?

In any case the pain was fierce, worse than any I imagined possible. In the hospital, I couldn't even dangle my leg over the side of the bed. It just hurt too much. Now I knew what some people go through.

All of which has me searching for insights. What do you learn by experiencing such intense, excruciating pain?

I can think of six things. They aren't particularly profound or powerful, but they are real and important.

First, and most obvious, your health is everything. Had I been diabetic, obese, immunocompromised, or otherwise vulnerable, my case would have been even worse and potentially lethal. Seventeen thousand people die every year from cellulitis. Four other cases were diagnosed at the same hospital while I was there, and none of us was connected in any way to one another. So I am recommitting myself to a healthy lifestyle and frequent workouts. I make no apology for going to the gym in the middle of the day. Besides, I always think better after a workout.

Second, love your dear friends and family. Really, really love them. My own called, texted, emailed, and visited. Without them, I would have felt alone, helpless, and hopeless. Never let an opportunity pass for words of support, confidence, respect, or admiration. Tell people what you like about them. Trust me, you’ll see more of whatever that is, though the real payoff is simply the expression of the sentiment and the closer relationship that results.

Third, appreciate medical science. You come across so much lunacy and stupidity on social media, especially the nonsense about vaccinations causing autism and other conditions and diseases. I was the beneficiary of advanced therapies and a half-dozen highly trained physicians specializing in skin infections, wound care, infectious diseases, rheumatology, and more. The nursing staff was never more than a few seconds away. I doff my hat to all of them.

Fourth, all of us need to dig deeper in our souls to find more empathy for other people. No one knows what pain—physical or emotional—someone else is going through. Nothing in business is so important that it excuses neglect for the person who is our teammate or customer or supplier. That’s especially true for our attitude toward people who appear different from ourselves. They really aren’t. We’re all human.

Fifth, make a habit of looking for beauty and humor. Take it wherever you find it. I myself find beauty in frequent hikes in the local forest preserves and state parks around home. There’s something restorative in the sight of spring foliage or the sound of morning birdsong. Humor is its own medicine, too. Anything from a YouTube video of frolicking animals to a silly Facebook meme can make you laugh, and I’ll take whatever I can get. By the same token, I recruit friends of a positive, energetic orientation, and I strive to avoid people of a cynical, pessimistic nature—as well as anything else that makes me frown.

Sixth, we have only so much time on this rock. It’s another cliché, I know, but it is true and it is relevant. When something completely unexpected knocks you off your feet for two whole weeks, you quickly realize that your life is time stamped. The lost minute, the wasted hour, the day that got away from you are gone forever, and your use-by date is that much closer.

Update: The next four months passed uneventfully. Then, wham! Friends had invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner, which was to be served at 3 o’clock. Knowing I would likely eat too much, I was intent on going to the gym for a strenuous workout in the morning. I should have seen it coming when, around 9 o’clock in the morning, I felt a little tired and lay down for just a few minutes before going to the gym. I woke up eight hours later, at 5:10 pm. Not only had I missed Thanksgiving dinner, I had insulted my hosts by not even calling. Sure enough, the next day the cellulitis was back.

Now, well into the following year, there is no sign of another relapse. But believe me, I am on the lookout constantly.